- Historic Sites
America’s Most Imitated Battle
At Cowpens, Dan Morgan showed how militia can be used. The formula worked in three later fights.
April 1956 | Volume 7, Issue 3
For that matter, his own professional attainments were not impressive. He had been commissioned a militia general because he was a New York landed proprietor, not because he had demonstrated any grasp of tactics. But if he had never commanded in a battle, at least the former schoolmaster had read a good many books about battle. And somewhere along the way he had been fascinated by the saga of Cowpens.
The American squadron was at the other end of the lake, attacking Fort George, a British post of second-rate strategic value at the mouth of the Niagara River. Brown had been left with about 500 regulars, including a few marines and bluejackets, and nearly the same number of local militiamen.
At dawn on May 29 Sir George Prevost’s 800 regulars landed on wooded Horse Island, within easy wading distance of the mainland. Brown’s 500 militiamen were posted behind natural cover along the beach. He asked only that they fire while the redcoats were wading through the shallows. Then they were free to make for the nearby woods, where Brown hoped to rally them later as his mobile reserve.
The small harbor was formed by Navy Point, a tongue of land projecting from the mainland into Black River Bay. At the base of the peninsula, just north of the village and about half a mile from the beach, were the navy yard, the blockhouse named Fort Tompkins, the log barracks, and the parade ground. Two American vessels were potential enemy prizes—a captured 10-gun brig, and a nearly completed 28-gun ship designed to be the dreadnaught of the lake.
Brown’s militiamen made it hot for the redcoats before scattering. The grenadiers of the 104th, according to the British account, waded ashore under “so heavy and galling a fire from a numerous but almost invisible foe, as to render it impossible for the artillery to come up.”
While the militiamen found a refuge in the second-growth woods, Prevost’s troops re-formed on the beach. Advancing with a stately tread under fire from Fort Tompkins, the scarlet column deployed for battle against the 500 American regulars drawn up on the parade ground as the second line of defense. There a memorable fight ensued as the opposing lines traded volley after volley without giving an inch.
Both forces were hidden by gunpowder smoke when a nervous American naval officer concluded prematurely that the battle was lost. Setting fire to the navy yard and the two ships to cheat the enemy of spoils, he precipitated one of the most melodramatic scenes in the nation’s military annals. For Brown’s regulars continued to stand their ground with the British fire in their faces and the flames of the blazing warehouses at their backs.
Both casualty-ridden lines were near the breaking point when Prevost tried for victory with an attack on the American left flank. By this time Brown had managed to rally about a hundred militiamen—farmers and villagers led by the local butcher—after convincing them that it was safe to share in the glory already won by the regulars. They bore down with awkward zest on the British right flank just as the redcoats were carrying out their own flanking movement; at this critical stage it took only a threat by fresh forces to decide the issue, and the British broke and ran.
The redcoats were allowed to withdraw to Horse Island and row away in their longboats without any interference. Brown did not trust his mobile reserve for a pursuit. Besides, all hands were needed as firemen; and the two ships were saved, though the navy yard burned to the ground as the enemy sailed back to Kingston.
Brown was rewarded for his revival of the Cowpens tactics by an appointment as brigadier in the regular army. Early in 1814 he put up a second star after relieving the incompetent James Wilkinson as commander on the northern front. Colonel Winfield Scott being made a brigadier soon afterwards, the two generals trained the little American army which distinguished itself during the summer of 1814 in the battles of Chippewa and Lundy’s Lane. After the war Brown remained in the army and became commanding general from 1821 until his death in 1828.
Before long, of course, the Cowpens formula was outdated by improvements which multiplied the range of cannon and small arms. But after figuring in four decisive actions, the old battle piece had passed into honorable retirement with a record unique in American military history.